Language Matters

How we can be more conscious of our language on refugees and migration.

Recently, a petition was launched to designate the German term “Flüchtlingskrise” (loosely translatable as “refugee crisis” – more about “Flüchtling” below) as the “Unwort” (bad but fashionable neologism) of the year. I support this petition, even though the “Unwort” of the year has already been chosen. The importance of talking about the terms we use on migration can be explained through the term “migrant crisis”:
First, adapting, without criticism, the idea that the (actually not so recent) increase of migrant* (I use the star as an expression of the manifold individual forms-of and reasons-for migration) movements towards Europe constitutes a crisis means playing into the hands of those who have always connoted “migration” and “refugees” as problematic. It is the acceptance, in one expression, of a discourse that discriminates against migrants* and reproduces racist and culturalist categories of superiority (the “natives” and their “homeland”) and inferiority (the people who, just through their existence, constitute a crisis).
Second, designating migrant movements as a crisis naturalizes the notion that migration is something uncontrollable, passive, out of “our” hands, a force of nature to be dealt with – the same applies to the terms “wave”, “stream” and others that have been used. It therefore also obscures the very active role Europe is playing, in so many ways, economically and geo-politically, inducing these migration movements, co-creating the reasons for migration. Just as importantly, it obscures the ways border regimes and racist public discourses are actively disrupting migration and preventing an inclusionary culture and polity.
Thirdly, it matters how we make distinctions between refugees* and migrants*. By making those distinctions and focusing on the legality of migration, we are reinforcing the concept of “acceptable” and “non-acceptable” reasons for migration – namely that people who seek refuge from war are “legitimate” migrants*, and that people who seek refuge from socio-economic injustices and for other, manifold reasons – or people who are just searching for better opportunities are “illegitimate” migrants*. I don’t question the rights and obligations afforded by the Geneva Refugee Convention, of course. But other reasons for migration should be seen and talked about as just as “legitimate”.
Add to that the problematic German term “Flüchtling” (the ending “–ling” typically designates negative belittling), and we are all taking part in said racist, mainstream discourse which is responsible for – and reproducing every day – the borders, both physical and imagined, around Europe.
If we are serious about inclusion, about promoting a Europe without borders, about being conscious of our privileges and responsibilities for unjust, and sometimes even murderous European policies and polities, then we need to include language in our discussions and make it – among education about the reasons for migration and the reasons for racist responses to it, a priority.
We need to be vigilant of the expressions and terms we attribute to people on the move. Thinking about how or where we make the distinction between refugees and migrants* is a good start.